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Bishop Leontine Kelly Bishop Leontine Kelly

Bishop Leontine T. C. Kelly is a retired United Methodist Bishop in San Mateo, CA. She was the first African-American woman to be elected a United Methodist bishop.

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United Methodist Church


The One Thing Needed

John 12:1-8

March 29, 1998

The Gospel of Luke records that Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, (whom Jesus raised from the dead) usually sat at the feet of Jesus when He visited their home in Bethany. She listened intently to all that He had to say. When Martha, distracted by her many tasks, had asked the Lord to chastise Mary for not helping her, Jesus had replied, "Martha, Martha you are worried and distracted by many things. There is need of only one thing, Mary has chosen the better part which will not be taken from her."

On the occasion of today's scripture a dinner has been given for Jesus at the same home. Lazarus sits at the table with Him along with others. Martha serves and Mary is moved to anoint the feet of Jesus with a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard. She wipes His feet with her hair, an act of devotion. The fragrance of the perfume fills the house.

In hours spent listening to Jesus, Mary had evidently understood the "one thing needed." It was her belief that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world. Martha had confessed to believing this when their brother Lazarus died.

Judas Iscariot's protest over the high cost of the perfume "nearly a year's wages for a laborer" instead of being sold and the money given to the poor, hardly distracted Mary's concentration on the Lord's pending death. The words of Jesus, however, gave comforting evidence the He knew she understood. "Leave her alone, she bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."

Jesus' daily ministry to the poor precludes any exclusion of obligation of concern for the poor. The anointing is not only for burial, which was the custom of the times, but in faith, Mary acclaims through the act, the kingship of Jesus. She had listened carefully.

As for Judas, Anne Horton in a meditation on this text writes. "Judas had seen an act of kindness, of loveliness, but he construed it as being wasteful." Judas is reacting to the generosity of someone's bestowing something precious on someone else. If Mary had poured the perfumed ointment on Judas, would he have reacted differently? Or was he so money conscious that he could not see the beauty of the gift?

Mary risked sharing her love for Jesus. He was her Lord and she believed what she had heard - all of it.

Mary's act of anointing is not sudden trust. Her heritage of faith is rooted in the belief that a Creator God - the only God - had brought into being all that is, creating humanity, male and female in God's image. God related to them as to no other creatures. Israel, Mary's forbears, had been chosen to be the community with whom and through whom God would work. Mary and Jesus held in common the heritage of an oppressed people with Messianic expectations. They believed God would break into history through a saving figure, the Anointed One. Jesus knew that through death, suffering and resurrection, He would become that figure. Mary had come to believe it.

The Word of God through the prophet Isaiah had spoken to Israel in Babylonian captivity of God's intervention and restoration. "Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old, I am about to do a new thing. Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people. The people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise."

Mary's anointing of the feet of Jesus is an act of faith, praise and hope. The God who provides water in the wilderness would bring light out of the darkest of hours for her. She overcomes personal loss as she prepares Jesus for death. God's gift to the world is for all peoples.

I come from a people of deep religious faith that God, in Jesus Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, has entered and will continue to intervene in history on the side of truth and justice and righteousness.

As children my brothers and I uncovered the entrance to a tunnel in the basement of Calvary Methodist Episcopal Church parsonage in Cincinnati, Ohio. Around our dinner table, we heard our father tell us the story of the underground railway, O that amazing instrument of God, weaving people together from the Southern states of this country to Canada, from the coast of Virginia to the heart of Iowa. People who opposed slavery and who were slaves, largely without knowing one another. formed a vital network of justice and good will enabling slaves to move toward freedom. The African American Spiritual, "Steal Away to Jesus," which accompanied the risky escapes, spoke of a faith that was tested, tried and proven true.

This story is a part of my own faith journey. After I shared it in an Ashram in Virginia a 91 year old man came up to me, embraced me and said he wished he could take me home with him. He was a Quaker. "In my barn," he stated, "there is a wagon with a false bottom. It belonged to my great grandfather. He was a conductor on the Underground Railroad. His run was from Dayton, Ohio to Cincinnati and back - for miles to freedom. Maybe your house was one of his stops. I still get goose pimples!

I am amazed at the reality of a purposeful God who, still by the power of the Holy Spirit, enters history to make things right. In the midst of the overwhelming problems of our times, Jesus calls us to listen and to act, to be the witnesses in this needy world.


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